Cuba

Preparing for a business career in Cuba takes persistence

The Tostonet venture repairs laptops, PCs and other devices. Although the nine employees can compete together for contracts, they all hold their own licenses as self-employed workers. Here Manuel Mendez, left, and Pedro Jordan, right, take advantage of the free WiFi outside the Estadio Latina Americano in Havana.
The Tostonet venture repairs laptops, PCs and other devices. Although the nine employees can compete together for contracts, they all hold their own licenses as self-employed workers. Here Manuel Mendez, left, and Pedro Jordan, right, take advantage of the free WiFi outside the Estadio Latina Americano in Havana. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Cuban entrepreneur Liber Puente is working on a master’s thesis about communication among “nontraditional friends,” so what better place for some research than Miami.

“The question I’m trying to answer is how do we sit and negotiate with our former enemies?” Puente said during a quick trip to Miami before returning to the University of Roehampton, where he is studying on a Chevening scholarship awarded by the British government to future leaders and influencers.

Cuban street performer, Yohan Ulloa, portrays "Tite, El Chichiricú," a famed Cuban tobacco roller, overlooking Viñales in the Province of Pinar del Río.

The question is a good one as the United States and Cuba try to find ways to work together after more than five decades of hostility and while the rapprochement, begun by former President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro on Dec. 17, 2014, is still on shaky ground.

Puente is busy these days.

During daylight hours he works on his master’s degree at Roehampton and in the evenings he corresponds via email and with his colleague at Tostonet, a Havana tech operation, and makes plans with the two other people he works with in his consulting firm, Puente Cubano.

Tostonet repairs laptops, printers, PCs and phones and does network installations and software development. It has nine workers. While they are allowed to pursue contracts together, all hold their own licenses as cuentapropistas, self-employed workers. They aren’t recognized as a private cooperative either, although Puente says they have applied to become one.

Ted Henken, a Baruch college professor who studies entrepreneurship in Cuba, said there are around 400 non-agricultural cooperatives but approvals for new ones seem to have been frozen for the past year or so. If approved, Puente said Tostonet would be the first IT cooperative in Cuba.

Currently there are some 535,000 self-employed Cubans, accounting for nearly a third of the workforce.

One of the biggest challenges in running a private tech venture in Cuba is getting the spare parts to operate the repair operation. “We decided to buy old laptops, broken laptops so we could get the screws and hardware needed to make repairs,” Puente said. “We learned how to do maintenance on motherboards to extend their lives.”

He said Tostonet is also willing to make an exchange: Two hours of free salsa lessons for any visitors who drop off an old computer at Tostonet’s Vedado office near the Coppelia ice cream park.

Tostonet workers have collaborated to compete for government contracts, building websites and installing networks for state enterprises. But Puente said it’s easier to work with the growing number of businesses in Cuba’s private sector.

“It’s better business — they pay more quickly,” he said. “Government companies take a long time to pay and there’s a lot of paperwork. Still, [government work] is a reliable business.”

Whenever possible, Puente said he likes to support other private businesses. A private accountant does Tostonet’s books and the Tostonet entrepreneurs hire other independent software developers from time to time if they need extra help on projects.

Puente’s other venture, Puente Cubano, is a play on his last name that translates as bridge, but it also defines what it does. It serves as a bridge, helping companies in South Florida and elsewhere navigate the Cuban market.

“They need someone to guide them through the Cuban market. The institutions and ways of doing business in Cuba are not what they’re used to,” he said. The firm also offers market research services.

The institutions and ways of doing business in Cuba are not what they’re used to.

Liber Puente, entreprenuer

Puente wants to learn as much as he can about American business, and during his recent trip to Miami, he met with executives from Stonegate Bank, which offers ATM and credit card services in Cuba; Airbnb, the online home-stay booking service that began operating in Cuba in 2015; and Facebook, which has caught on in Cuba as the number of public WiFi hotspots increases.

Growing up in Cuba, Puente said he had an idea Miami was a small place where the main business was hatching conspiracies against Cuba. Instead, he said, he found it “big, dynamic,” a multicultural city where he could see doing business in the future. He was struck by the fast pace of life.

Puente has taken a round-about route to entrepreneurship.

In college, his degree was in mechanical engineering. Then he went into Cuba’s foreign service, where he was stationed in various posts abroad. But, he said, “I wanted to do things on my own.” And he wanted to make more money. So after what he calls an “amicable divorce” from the foreign service, he struck out on his own.

Puente plans to head back to Cuba after finishing his dissertation in September and is eager to apply the lessons he has learned. When he was in Cuba, he took advantage of all the business and management training available, completing the Catholic Church’s Cuba Emprende program for entrepreneurs, a Cuban Economic Association program, the InCuba program for cuentapropistas at the Centro Loyola in Havana and studied business administration at the Centro La Salle in Havana.

As he finishes his degree in England, he keeps thinking about new ventures: setting up a service that would make it easier for U.S. companies to hire Cuban software developers and coders, and setting up a platform for Cuban Americans to pay for private services used by their relatives on the island. “They would be able to pay, for example, for a party catered by a cuentapropista,” he said. There are a number of private party planning businesses and catering services already operating in Cuba that could be potential customers.

He’d like to see the business channels developing between the United States and Cuba stay open. Even though he’s well aware there could be a policy change toward Cuba under President Donald Trump, he’s optimistic that business ties will endure.

“Trump can’t build a wall around the world,” he said. “We Cubans are very creative. I strongly believe that business people will continue to find a way to keep developing relations. I don’t think Trump would want to stop everything.”

Rick Scott, Governor of Florida, comments on ports in Florida doing business with the "ruthless dictator" Raul Castro". The governor was in Fort Lauderdale today to announce tax cuts for this year's budget.

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